Christian Pulisic, a 22-year-old winger from Hershey, became the first U.S. national team player to score in a Champions League semifinal, and Chelsea happily accepted a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in the first of two legs.
“It’s a proud moment, but the job is nowhere near done,” Pulisic said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Chelsea will return home to west London for next Wednesday’s return leg, needing a victory or a scoreless draw to secure passage to the championship game in Istanbul against Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.
Pulisic’s strike provided a vital away goal — the first tiebreaker, should the teams finish even on aggregate score. He also became the first U.S. player to score against the Spanish titans in an official competition. And now he is on the cusp of becoming the first to play in a final — an important steppingstone for American soccer.
He started on the right wing, threatened consistently in the first half and played 65 minutes before being replaced for tactical purposes, another glowing performance after working himself back into Manager Thomas Tuchel’s good graces this spring.
Pulisic drew six fouls; the rest of the team totaled five. He joined Lionel Messi, Neymar and three others who absorbed that many in a semifinal over the past 10 years. No one on Real Madrid suffered more than two fouls.
Chelsea took the early initiative, and Pulisic was in the middle of it.
In the 10th minute, Mason Mount made a pacey run out of midfield and crossed to Pulisic, who headed the ball to Timo Werner for a six-yard stab and an almost-certain goal. Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, however, used his right foot to make a terrific kick save.
Four minutes later, Pulisic scored his fifth Champions League goal, breaking a tie with DaMarcus Beasley for the U.S. career record. He timed his run perfectly to get behind the defense and cushioned Antonio Rüdiger’s long ball. Courtois came off his line to challenge the free-running Pulisic, but the American used quick, tight footwork to pull the ball from the lunging Courtois and calmly fire an 11-yard shot past two retreating defenders.
“When I turned, I didn’t expect to be so free in on goal,” Pulisic said. “I took my time with it and found the right time to shoot it. Nice goal.”
Chelsea aimed to ride the momentum to another deserved goal. Pulisic was targeted by Madrid, absorbing hard tackles, the second of which resulted in Vinícius Júnior’s yellow card.
Chelsea’s opportunities, though, went unfulfilled.
“Sometimes, if you have such a good half-hour like we had and so many chances and half-chances, everybody wishes for more composure and for more precision,” Tuchel said. “The challenge was more to worry too long and to not lose confidence.”
Madrid, though, began to find its way. From beyond the penalty area, Karim Benzema stroked a powerful shot off the far post. And in the 29th minute, Chelsea failed to clear the ball from danger in the penalty area. In an elegant sequence, Benzema headed the ball to himself and used a wicked side volley from seven yards to tie the score.
The teams were level at halftime, but given its bright start, Chelsea surely felt it deserved to be ahead.
“The first half was not our best,” Madrid Manager Zinedine Zidane said, “but the second half was better. So it was a fair result.”
The second half lacked energy and opportunities, which, given the setting and circumstances, worked in Chelsea’s favor.
The Blues have been fantastic defensively since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in January, and in another resolute performance they saw out the match and embraced a draw that felt like a victory — thanks, in large part, to Pulisic.
“It’s halftime” in the series, Tuchel said, “and we need to fight for every centimeter and every advantage.”
— Steven Goff
Read highlights of Chelsea vs. Real Madrid below.
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